Made in Italy: A Visit to Motor Valley

As long as there have been automobiles and motorcycles, there have been people who wanted to make them go faster. And for more than a century, many of them have been Italian.

The Italian Grand Prix

Forgive me for quoting myself, but the point bears repeating. One week into our tour of Northern Italy, the trip had been all about the country’s passion for motorsports: visiting the circuits at Monza and Imola were incredible reminders of how Italy’s racing heritage continues to be a source of national pride and global appeal. Finally, it was the day to see where the legend was born—or at least where it is built.

***

There’s no mistaking it; it’s instantly recognized all around the world. That flash of yellow, often set against iconic red. The end-all and be-all of fast… food?

That’s right: the day began under the Golden Arches in the City of Arches—at McDonald’s, in front of Bologna’s Central Station. It was a gray and drizzly September morning.1 At just before 8:30am, a Mercedes-Benz van, emblazoned with the tricolore, pulled up to the curb where we stood waiting. A slender, goateed man in a similarly branded jacket jumped out of the van to greet us. It was our guide for the day, Francesco Bini, a former Formula One technician/mechanic whose curriculum vitae reads like a roster of elite Italian manufacturers—Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani. His latest project? Motorstars, a tour operator that organizes day trips of Italy’s renowned Motor Valley.

The rest of our punctual group—British travelers, Italian-Australian emigrés, and another American car-lover (complete with Tennessee twang)—showed up at the McRendezvous point, and after some introductory pleasantries (including the day’s itinerary), we were off to our first stop.

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Ducati's Borgo Panigale factory

The manufacturing industry in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region has a long history that precedes its modern reputation for fancy wheels, including mechanical works for textile production and the booming agricultural industry (still an important contributor to the region’s present-day economic strength). After all, Ferruccio Lamborghini had a successful tractor manufacturing business before launching the exotic supercar company that still bears his name.

Tucked away in the suburban Borgo Panigale neighborhood, near Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport, is the home of motorcycle manufacturer Ducati. The company, founded by Antonio Cavalieri Ducati and his sons as a producer of radio components,2 had grown to become Bologna’s largest company in the 1930s—yet at that point they had not even begun to build what is now their world-famous line of motorcycles.

In the parking lot, the company pride was already on display. Many employees (and visitors) ride motorcycles or scooters to the factory, but only Ducati bikes are allowed inside the parking lot; during our visit, YamahaSuzuki, and BMW bikes were relegated to the street.3

The story of Ducati is covered in the compact but well-designed Museo Ducati, located on the second story of the factory building. The Borgo Panigale plant was originally built in 1935. By the latter part of the decade, well into World War II, Italian militarization mandated Ducati’s shift to producing components for the Axis war effort. As a result, the factory was the target of Allied bombings.

Following the end of World War II, Ducati, like the rest of Italy, had to rebuild. The company collaborated with Turin-based SIATA4 to manufacture small bicycle motors, setting itself on a whole new trajectory. The Cucciolo, with its cute puppy-like bark of an exhaust note, was a boon to Italians during the postwar reconstruction years. It was inexpensive to purchase and maintain (thanks to its excellent gas mileage) as a mode of transport, and it wasn’t long before the Cucciolo began to be raced in competition. Before long, Ducati’s future began to evolve into something much more technologically ambitious. Mopeds eventually gave way to the development of full-fledged motorcycles and racing machines.

The curvaceous main exhibit hall of the museum evokes a racetrack, with many historic examples of Ducati motorcycles “sprinting” in chronological order. Museo Ducati pays special tribute to its motorsports achievements by displaying many of its championship winning bikes and trophies.

The Ducati factory tour was a rare no-photos-allowed peek inside the inner workings of a manufacturer.5 Although many of the individual components come from elsewhere, they’re brought to Borgo Panigale, where the bikes are assembled by hand and tested individually before being prepped for shipment. The factory is well-organized and fairly compact. Nowadays, Ducati practices Toyota-style “lean” manufacturing; this is evident in the small “supermarkets” of stock components set up throughout the factory where workers could collect the parts needed to do their jobs. Assembly trays, molded with perfectly shaped cups for every part, are loaded up with all the exact components required to complete the sub-assembly—sort of like IKEA for gearheads. This overhaul of the manufacturing process, combined with a revamp of the company’s supply chain (much of which is sourced from local suppliers in Northern Italy) has helped Ducati increase production and improve reliability while retaining its relatively small (compared to, say, Honda) footprint.6

About halfway through the tour, our group stopped at an inconspicuous door with a small window. Through this tiny porthole was an all-white space—clinical, and devoid of people or machinery, only more doors. This, our guide explained, was Ducati Corse, the company’s sporting division responsible for the purpose-built race machines that race in MotoGP and the tuned production models for the World Superbike Championship series. We nodded and craned our necks to peer into an imagined hallowed realm of racing.

Ducati Corse MotoGP bike belonging to Andrea Dovizioso

***

Ferrari factory entrance

There’s no mistaking it; it’s instantly recognized all around the world. That flash of yellow, often set against iconic red. The end-all and be-all of fast cars.

As we drove into Maranello, Francesco brought up an inevitable topic: “Luca di Montezemolo, they say he’s out.” His word seemed reliable. After all, Francesco had once worked for Ferrari’s Formula One team before launching his tour company (during the dominant Michael Schumacher years, no less). The dismal 2014 season and public clashes with Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne did not do much to quell the growing rumors.

As the van pulled into the parking lot of Museo Ferrari Maranello, a media presence had already begun to form outside of the museum entrance.

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The history of automotive racing evolved in lockstep with the birth and development of the gasoline-powered automobile. Racing served as a means to showcase the superior reliability and performance of this nascent technology, first on the open roads of Europe and America, then on purpose-built racetracks. 7

It wasn’t until the interwar years that automotive development really hit its stride in Italy, when a young Enzo Ferrari was managing race cars and drivers for the successful Alfa Romeo team. In 1933, the car manufacturer was the subject of a government takeover by IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale), an Italian public holding company established in 1933 by the Fascist regime to assist private companies that went bankrupt during the Depression. It was at this point that Ferrari’s stable (or scuderia) of drivers was tapped to become the de facto factory team for Alfa Romeo. Several years later, Alfa absorbed Ferrari’s team and appointed Enzo Ferrari the head of the newly formed Alfa Corse racing division. However, the partnership was not long-lived; by 1939, he and Alfa Corse had split, setting the stage for Ferrari’s return to racing under his own name.

When the newly organized FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) convened after World War II, they established the Formula One Grand Prix series, starting at England’s Silverstone Circuit. Alfa Romeo won the first championship with the Gran Premio 158 Alfetta, driven by Giuseppe Farina. By the next race in Monaco, Ferrari’s own team had joined the grid—and while Alfa Romeo’s involvement in Formula One has been on and off through the decades, Ferrari has remained in the lineup ever since, sporting Italian rosso corsa, the international racing color of Italy.

Walking toward the museum entrance, visitors are greeted by an oversized relief of Ferrari’s logo: il rampante cavallino, or the Prancing Horse. Inside, the featured exhibit for 2014 was “California Dreaming,” a look back at Ferrari’s history in the United States.

One of the great treats of the museum is actually a bit tucked away; blink, and you’ll miss it. Behind a life-sized diorama of Enzo Ferrari at work in his office lies a narrow path that opens up into a cavernous space: the Sala delle Vittorie, or Hall of Victories. High up on the rear wall, the Scuderia’s countless Grand Prix trophies stretch towards the ceiling. Below that, helmets of Driver’s Champion winners and miniature scale models of their signature cars: from Alberto Ascari to Kimi Räikkönen. At the front of the Hall, a squad of recent cars, many from the dominant early 2000s, were proudly displayed on a dais. Above them, a projected video replaying the glory days over and over. The weight of such history can be double-edged: awe-inspiring, yet stultifying, especially when there’s tremendous pressure to live up to high expectations or an institutional resistance to change.

After exploring the rest of the “California Dreaming” exhibit and sampling the F1 simulator, we rejoined our group in the museum parking lot to board a company shuttle bus for our tour of Ferrari’s factory complex. By this time, the gray skies had given way to sunshine—and the media hubbub in the lot had grown significantly.

The Ferrari Factory

The forty-five minute tour (narrated in English, no photo/video allowed) began at the historic entrance to the Ferrari factory, located at the crossroads of Via Abetone Inferiore and Via Fornace. With its dusty red brick façade and bright yellow signage, the building is largely as it was when it was originally built in 1947. Enzo Ferrari kept his office here, just left of the entrance, so he could observe the daily activity.

The bus continued along the factory’s main road, Viale Enzo Ferrari. Beyond the historic office building, the complex opened up and grew, a series of glass-clad buildings developed as part of an ambitious, multi-year modernization venture called “Formula Uomo,” meant to improve employee well-being and production. The main entrance nowadays is at the other end of this road along Via Grizzaga, where the wind tunnel (designed by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano) sits like a spaceship on the lawn. Employees strolled around in their red uniforms.

The bus approached a perimeter road surrounding Pista di Fiorano, the test track where Ferrari performs shakedowns of its latest models. To diehard Ferraristi, this is hallowed ground. Next to the track is Enzo Ferrari’s house; from the time that the track was built in 1972 until his passing in 1988, the old man was often at Fiorano, watching the cars go by on track. There’s also a red AMI (Italian Air Force) F-104 Starfighter, a keepsake from a 1981 stunt when Gilles Villeneuve raced against the fighter jet in his Ferrari 126c—and won.

As we drove around the perimeter of the racetrack, we saw two large helicopters parked side by side. The tour guide pointed them out: “One belongs to Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat; the other belongs to Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president and chairman of Ferrari.” But for how much longer? The presence of news media and Signore Marchionne were ominous.

Upon our return to the museum, the media had dispersed. After a casual pasta group lunch at the Push Start café, we had some free time to explore Maranello on our own. One happy couple peeled off in a red car for an afternoon joy ride. We opted for a couple post-lunch cocktails at the bar tucked behind Ristorante Cavallino (where Enzo Ferrari himself dined regularly). Another treat is to simply walk around town and peer into the various workshops, or carrozzerie, where many ex-Ferrari workers continue to refine their craft. Enzo Ferrari encouraged his employees to be entrepreneurial, and often provided them with resources when they left to jumpstart their own businesses.8

After drinks, we walked over to the construction site for the future headquarters for Ferrari’s racing division, or gestione sportiva—better known as Scuderia Ferrari. Just as rival teams like Red Bull and McLaren have built their flashy new “technology centers”, the Scuderia was nearing completion of a futuristic facility for its Formula One team. Its gleaming surface is in sharp contrast to the ruddy brick and stucco that make up most of Maranello. Positioned on Via Fornace behind Ristorante Cavallino, the new headquarters sits facing the original factory entrance, linking the past with the present.

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Lamborghini

There’s no mistaking it; it’s instantly recognized all around the world. That flash of yellow, often set against iconic red. But sometimes black. Or white. Or orange. Or neon green.

If Maranello belongs to the Prancing Horse, Sant’Agata Bolognese is the house of the Raging Bull—Il toro infuriato. The company headquarters sit in a well-kept if surprisingly staid business park. The black museum building, all severe angles and reflective glass, abuts the historic factory, where Lamborghini has been making cars for decades.9 At the entrance stands a tall obelisk bearing the company’s bull logo. Founder Ferruccio Lamborghini was born under the astrological sign of Taurus the bull, and was an avid fan of Spanish bullfighting.

Ferruccio Lamborghini amassed his wealth in manufacturing tractors and indulged by collecting luxury vehicles. In an apocryphal tale, when Lamborghini told Enzo Ferrari of a defect in a vehicle he had purchased, Enzo retorted that Lamborghini should build his own car (throwing some shade about how a tractor maker couldn’t possibly know the first thing about building sports cars10)—and so he did. In contrast to Ferrari, whose road car business was a means to fund his passion for grand prix racing, Lamborghini has emphatically been all about luxury sports cars. And what sports cars.11

Lamborghini Aventador

The small but impressive museum is rather like a light-filled showroom or gallery, one full of both iconic Lamborghini models and rare one-off prototypes. The company released its first model, the 350 GT, in 1964. In the following year came a radical shift away from the traditional Italian gran turismo with the two-seater Miura sports car, designed by Marcello Gandini of Bertone. Arguably one of the most beautiful cars ever made, it was also the fastest production road car of its time, catapulting the upstart tractor manufacturer into the realm of supercars. Gandini would also go on to create the Countach, a seminal design in the 1970s and 80s-era with its aggressively wedge-shaped, cabin-forward silhouette and the trademark scissor doors, now a signature of the Lamborghini marque.

This extravagant devotion to the technically and aesthetically refined high-performance sports car for the sports car’s sake has become the linchpin of the Lamborghini heritage, even as the marque has changed hands numerous times since the 1970s (the oil crisis forced Ferruccio’s hand into selling the company), eventually settling into ownership by Audi and the Volkswagen Auto Group at large.

At about 4:45pm, Francesco explained that sometimes employees left a little earlier than 5:00pm, causing the local roads to swell with traffic, so it was important to get a head start on the trip back to downtown Bologna. After all, one of the guys in our tour group needed to catch the evening train from Bologna back to his hotel in Florence.

***

Back at our hotel, we hopped on the free Wi-Fi and saw the headline: Montezemolo had stepped down as the president and chairman of Ferrari. After twenty-three years at the helm of Ferrari—first as Enzo Ferrari’s personal assistant, then as Sporting Director of Gestione Sportiva, then as company president and chairman—an ignominious result like that at Monza was simply the last straw. As Marchionne mentioned in an interview, a Ferrari that does not win is not a Ferrari. Montezemolo’s departure marked the end of Ferrari’s palpable link with its founder.

And yet, seemingly against all odds, the Scuderia has shown some signs of competitiveness in 2015 after a humiliating 2014 season, including an early surprise victory by Sebastian Vettel at the Malaysian Grand Prix and an emotional win at the Hungarian Grand Prix, days after the tragic passing of Jules Bianchi.12 At Monza, one year after the disappointing result of 2014, Vettel earned a second place podium finish at his new team’s home race, followed two weeks later by yet another win at the Singapore Grand Prix.

Ferrari flags proudly fly in front of the newly-completed headquarters of the Scuderia’s Gestione Sportiva, one for each race victory thus far—as dictated by tradition, of course. Although Mercedes-Benz has already clinched the 2015 constructors’ championship, Ferrari appear optimistic about their fighting chances next season. Likewise, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Group, the holding company of Fiat Group and owner of Ferrari, also feel optimistic about the prospect of spinning off Ferrari into its own public company via an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.

Amid the globalization of automotive manufacturers, whether it’s Ducati’s newfound dedication to the Japanese concept of kaizen, Lamborghini’s game of multinational ownership hot potato, or the possibility of owning a piece of Maranello from halfway across the globe—the love of motoring—its past, present, and future—continues to thrive in a special way in this part of the world. The only time that Italian racing fans shed their rosso corsa for Yamaha yellow is when The Doctor is in. Every Lamborghini is taken out on the countryside roads of Sant’Agata Bolognese for one last test run before being delivered to its proud new owner.13 The parish bells in Maranello still ring with every Scuderia Ferrari victory. And, somewhere in Italy, a young child is born, like Francesco, with gasoline pumping in their veins.

A red Lamborghini Huracán cruises through the parking lot of the company headquarters in Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy.


How to Get There

Motorstars. Advance reservations are recommended, particularly if you are planning your visit during the high season or other peak travel periods, such as the days before/after the Italian Grand Prix (as I did).

Ducati. Museum and factory tours are available via advance reservation on most weekdays, with limited availability on Saturdays. The museum is even viewable online via Google Street View. The Borgo Panigale plant is relatively accessible via mass transit (bus and suburban train) from Bologna’s central station.

Museo Ferrari di Maranello. The Museo Ferrari in Maranello is open daily (except for the Christmas holiday). During the increasingly long Formula One season, the museum often live broadcasts the races for special viewing parties, included with the cost of general museum admission. For visitors relying entirely on mass transit, a Ferrari-operated shuttle operates service between Modena Railway Station, the Enzo Ferrari House Museum in Modena, and the Museo Ferrari in Maranello.

The Ferrari Factory and Track Tour is available by advance reservation only.

Museo Lamborghini. The museum is open during weekday business hours (reservations are required for guided tours of the museum). The factory is available on weekdays for guided tours by reservation only, and is traditionally closed for the month of August. Bus service from Bologna Autostazione (line 576 – direction: Crevalcore) can take you to the town of Sant’Agata Bolognese, within 5 minutes walk of the factory (stop: Sant’Agata Bolognese Chiesa Frati, abbreviated as “S.Agata B. Chiest Frati”).

Other Locations

Pagani. The new kid on the block takes visitors by reservation only. Note that private transport is required, as there is no public transport to the new Pagani facility.

Museo Enzo Ferrari. The recently-built museum in Enzo Ferrari’s hometown of Modena is accessible via a shuttle that ferries visitors between the Ferrari museums in Modena and Maranello. It operates on the same hours as its sister museum in Maranello.

Il Museo Storico dell’Alfa Romeo in Arese (outside Milan) has finally reopened, just in time for Expo 2015. The Alfa Romeo Historical Museum resides in the company’s old headquarters and has been completely refreshed for its grand reopening.

Collezione Umberto Panini Motor Museum. This impressive private collection of historic Maserati race cars, originally established by entrepreneur Umberto Panini, is located in Modena. Visits are by appointment only, from March to October (with traditional closure during August).

The new Ferruccio Lamborghini Museum in Funo (near Bologna) has many more Lambos of all shapes and sizes.

The admission-free Mauro Pascoli Vespa Collection in Ravenna (about 90 minutes by train from Bologna), sits adjacent to the eponymous mechanic shop, which specializes in fabricating reproduction parts for vintage Vespas.

Transport

The closest international airport to Motor Valley is Bologna Guglielmo Marconi (BLQ). Other alternatives are Milan’s airports (Malpensa and Linate) or Florence (for flights within Europe).

Where to Stay

A short walk from Bologna’s Central Station is I Portici, a four-star luxury hotel located on a stretch of the main thoroughfare, Via Indipendenza, abutting the city’s grand terraced public park. As hotel guests, we enjoyed complimentary access to a private event held for the opening of an art exhibit at the hotel.

In Maranello, Planet Hotel sits directly across from Ferrari’s historic entrance.

Where to Eat

While a Motorstars full day tour includes a sit-down lunch, if you’re traveling on your own, there are a couple notable eateries for Ferraristi. Choice numero uno: make a stop in Maranello at Ristorante Cavallino, located directly across from the original Ferrari factory entrance. Enzo Ferrari himself dined here regularly. Ristorante Montana, on the other hand, is frequented by the Scuderia’s drivers—probably because it’s located not far from the Fiorano track. Over in Modena, Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace, is chef Massimo Bottura‘s acclaimed Osteria Francescana.

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